Yinka Shonibare: End Of Empire, The Power Of Immigration At Turner Contemporary

Upon the shoulders of the artist’s figures rests conflict, dominion and the highly contentious and contemporary issue of migration.

Turner Contemporary’s Sunley Gallery is currently displaying two major works by leading contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare MBE. These latest works by Shonibare have been created as part of the 14-18 NOW programme of World War 1 Centenary Art commissions, and also coincides with the gallery’s fifth anniversary.

Yinka Shonibare, The British Library, 2016, Turner Contemporary, Margate, Photo: P A Black © 2016

Upon entering the gallery the viewer is met with the sight of the artist’s first work on display; ‘The British Library’. The piece consists of shelves of myriad-sized books, with sleeves made from the artist’s trademark colourful wax fabrics. The spines of the books bear the names of immigrants who have enriched British culture –  including the likes of T.S. Eliot, Hans Holbein, and Zaha Hadid. This installational work is a reflection on the nature of social displacement, and a rebuke to many who fear immigration, and social change. The piece is a signifier of the amalgamation of cultures, fusions of creativity and intellect leading to the enrichment of our social and cultural lives, a process that has enriched our environment and in turn, the art that occupies it.

Yinka Shonibare, End Of Empire, 2016, Turner Contemporary, Margate, Photo: P A Black © 2016
Shonibare’s trademark colours are also unveiled in the form of two figures dressed in the artist’s bright and patterned fabrics –  a material usage remaining at the heart of the artist’s practice – each figure balanced in opposite positions on a Victorian-style steam-punk-esque seesaw. Atop the shoulders of both figures rests ‘globe-heads’ – the traditional spherical globe one remembers from school – highlighting the countries involved in the First World War.

Upon the shoulders of the artist’s figures rests conflict, dominion and the highly contentious and contemporary issue of migration, as the figures slowly rise and fall, their kinetic dance symbolising conflict and resolution, in a state of unending flux, the relationship remains perpetually unresolved both literally and metaphorically.

Set against Turner Contemporary’s dramatic view of the North Sea the work takes on a further poignancy. After all the background of the work is a  conveyor of commerce and migration. The globe heads of the figures highlight socio-cultural changes forged by post-war political alliances that changed our geopolitical map forever, and with it our societies.

The artist’s material usage becomes another conceptual element of both works, and a signifier of cultural diversity effecting creativity, positive change, and social evolution. Shonibare’s works truly reflect the current zeitgeist via one enduring element of the artist’s work: Shonibare’s continued use of ‘African’ fabrics – a key material in the artist’s work since 1994, which is in fact Dutch wax-printed cotton – this material usage serves as a signifier of societies cultural misconceptions. In fact shonibare’s kinetic sculpture plays with the very balance and imbalance of personal and global human relationships. A kinetic metaphor for an empire-building industrial revolution, these latest works by the artist balance frivolousness and the weighty topics of Empire and exclusion in equal measure.

Yinka Shonibare MBE RA was born in London and moved to Lagos, Nigeria at the age of three. The artist returned to London to study Fine Art first at Byam Shaw College of Art (now Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design) and then at Goldsmiths College, where Shonibare received his MFA, graduating as part of the ‘Young British Artists’ generation. The artist currently lives and works in the East End of London – and is himself a signifier of the role global movement plays in the enrichment of our culture.

Paul Black
Art Journalist

Featured image – Yinka Shonibare, End Of Empire, 2016, Turner Contemporary, Margate, Photo: P A Black © 2016

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